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Noah Trembly and Marcus Kuck show Jenny Hall-Jones, associate vice president of student affairs and dean of students, how to use a vocabulary application that allows nonverbal individuals to speak with the assistance of a computer.

Photographer: Angela Woodward

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From left, students Beth Misler, John Lortie and Jason Chiappino discuss "Challenged by Choice." Chiappino, who simulated having schizophrenia as part of the challenge, is equipped with headphones that played a recording of voices.

Photographer: Angela Woodward

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Natalia Buitrago Rovira, a student from Colombia in Jenny Nelson's Introduction to Research Methods in Communication and Development class, shares her experience simulating what it is like to live with schizophrenia.

Photographer: Angela Woodward

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OHIO rises to disability awareness challenge

Employees, students participate in ‘Challenged by Choice’

Several members of the Ohio University community participated in the Athens City Commission on Disabilities’ “Challenged by Choice” event on Sept. 19. Each of them signed up for the program for individual reasons, but all of them walked away from it with a deeper understanding of and compassion for those with disabilities and an experience that will guide them in their personal and professional lives.

In its fourth year, “Challenged by Choice” allows abled bodied individuals to experience what it is like to have a physical or mental disability. This year the event focused on five disabilities – mental illness, communication disorders, cognitive delay, Parkinson’s Disease and diabetes. Program participants selected one of those disabilities and then spent the afternoon engaging in their routine activities while experiencing some of the challenges those with that particular disability face every day.

Jenny Hall-Jones, associate vice president of student affairs and dean of students, was recruited to participate in the event by Steve Patterson, co-chair of the Disabilities Commission, a member of Athens City Council and an associate professor of psychology at OHIO. She spent the afternoon “living” with a communication disorder.

Hall-Jones’ schedule included five appointments during which she, a self-described “talker,” tried to refrain from speaking. Instead she used an iPad equipped with a vocabulary application that allows nonverbal individuals to type what they want to say. The application then translates that typed message into spoken word. The iPad Hall-Jones used and advice on which application worked best was provided by Noah Trembly, a former instructor at OHIO and a current student at the University. Trembly was born with cerebral palsy and communicates with the aid of a computer.

Ashley Roberts graduated from OHIO this past May with a degree in community health. She has been working with individuals with diabetes through COMCorps, a program administered by the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine’s Community Health Programs. Roberts volunteered to participate in “Challenged by Choice” and opted to simulate living with diabetes – an experience, she said, that has made her more empathetic toward the individuals with whom she works.

For her simulation, Roberts spent the afternoon monitoring the foods she ate and snapping a rubber band she put around her wrist every time she, as an individual with diabetes, would have had to test her blood or administer an insulin injection.

More than 20 students in Jenny Nelson’s Introduction to Research Methods in Communication and Development class participated in “Challenged by Choice” as part of research they have been doing on disabilities. Five of the students simulated a disability while the remaining students documented those students’ experiences – through video, audio recordings, blogging and tweeting.

“These students are getting the full spectrum of what research is all about,” explained Nelson, who also volunteered to simulate a disability – schizophrenia – and who lives with a disability. Nelson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2010. “There are different ways of conducting research, and the interactive approach is the best. This is what research is all about – developing relationships, talking about issues and learning – and I think adopting a disability will be a real eye-opener.”

Some of Nelson’s students spent the afternoon simulating what it would be like to live with schizophrenia. Each of the students was equipped with headphones that played a recording of voices.

Other students adopted Parkinson’s Disease for the afternoon and attached weights to their wrists and/or ankles to simulate the slowness that often accompanies the illness.

After spending the afternoon “living” with these conditions, the group gathered for the culmination of the program – “Disability Speaks,” during which program participants shared their experiences and individuals who actually have these disabilities spoke as well.

The keynote speaker was Jason Jolley, an assistant professor in OHIO’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs. Jolley has three young daughters with various degrees of disability.

“You really don’t know what the day’s going to bring,” Jolley said of providing care to his daughters.

He spoke of the excellent resources the local community offers to his daughters but also noted the fear he has that those resources will diminish as the girls age.

Jolley also offered some advice.

“Try to look past the disability and see the person,” Jolley said, urging those in attendance to recognize how they treat individuals with disabilities.

“This really was a challenge for me,” Hall-Jones said of her “Challenged by Choice” experience.

The vocabulary application Hall-Jones and those with communication disorders use allows them to speak but not immediately. There’s a delay between the time the user begins typing a sentence and when the computer translates it into spoken word. Hall-Jones said she found the conversations she was engaged in went on without her.

“I often felt like I was two to three sentences behind,” she said.

Roberts works with individuals with diabetes every day – at Athens County schools and through Community Health Programs.

“Actually forcing myself to live a day in the life of someone with diabetes, I now have a different understanding,” she said. “When you have diabetes, you always have to have a plan, but you also have to be able to be flexible.”

Jason Chiappino, a graduate student in Nelson’s class who is studying public media, simulated Parkinson's Disease the day before “Challenged by Choice” as part of his class research and schizophrenia the day of the actual event. He described the schizophrenia experience as “terrifying” and said the Parkinson’s Disease experience made him realize the things we take for granted. As an example, he mentioned having to use the stairs when an elevator in a building was out of service.

“I think this experience will help me be of service to individuals with disabilities, a part of our community that sometimes gets swept under the rug and too often forgotten altogether,” he said.